The Whitelands Project is, at heart, a woodland restoration project. We work to encourage sustainable small business; from timber with Whitelands Sawmill to kids clubs with Elsa and Club Morgan, our aim is to help local people make biodiversity their business. But in the end it all comes down to the woodland ecosystem and the creatures that make it their home.
Things have been pretty quiet at Whitelands over the last two years (for obvious reasons). I have been working away from my woodland base for over 18 months now. Multiple lockdowns and being separated from family hasn’t been easy for anyone, but I count myself lucky, because I’ve been able to spend my time studying a subject I love.
My research at the University of St Andrews has focused on biodiversity change in managed woodlands. This topic was inspired by working at Whitelands, and so it only felt right to use it as my primary case study. Analysing the transformation from overgrown conifer plantation and arable field to the rich mosaic of habitat that now covers most of the 40acre SSSI has been amazing. Incredibly frustrating and confusing, too, but amazing none the less.
Whitelands Wood in 2001 and again in 2021 (GEE, 2021).
So, what can I tell you? Those of you who have been with the project since its beginning may or may not remember the dark, dense conifer of the early days, and if you do I hope you also remember Jonathan West’s vivid descriptions of how thinning would open the woodland up. Descriptions of how the broadleaf trees would rise up to fill the gaps, and the diversity of vegetation that would flow in to fill every empty corner. And if you take a walk around the woodland now, you will see all of these predictions have come true. The sections of Western Red Cedar still present across almost 20 acres of the site provide the majority of Whitelands timber value, and feed the ever growing sawmill enterprise on the slopes below. The contrast between the deep dense conifer and the bright broadleaf is obvious to everyone who visits. Likewise, the neighbouring fields, usually a yellow blanket of rape seed throughout the summer months, serve as a clear contrast to the tangled green plantation buzzing with insects and wild flowers.
You don’t need me to tell you biodiversity has increased. You can feel the change in the sights, sounds, smells. Testing methods of measuring biodiversity often seems, to those who work the land, like an overblown form of bean counting. When you are on site every day, working as part of the ecosystem, you see the changes happening before your very eyes, and any formal analysis seems unnecessary. Unfortunately, most people don’t/ cant/ won’t pay so much attention to changes in the landscape. Ecological transformation tends to develop in the background, unnoticed by the vast majority of people. This is dangerous – not only does it leave us open to the insidious implications of shifting baseline syndrome, but it also means unique and wonderful habitats can be consistently undervalued, “developed” or destroyed. The children’s groups always give me hope in this respect. The regular kids never fail to point out when some aspect of the woodland has changed, if a tree has been felled, or new saplings have appeared in an old play area. And if, like them, you know the woodland well and all of this seems obvious to you, forgive me – but I am going to tell you about it anyway.
For starters, habitat diversity has increased by over 40%, and habitat quality has skyrocketed. The thinning of conifer trees creates space and light for native plants to thrive. The diminishing ash canopy (from ash dieback) and increased deadwood has lead to astounding increases in flowers – wood anemones, primrose, bluebells – and fungi.
The most radical transformation since the West family took over management is the 10 acre ex arable field, now an extension to the mature SSSI woodland. In 2002 this was little more than dust and crop stubble. It is now a minimum intervention plantation, a cross between timber focused forestry and “rewilding”.
Hazel, birch, aspen, small leaf lime, field maple, wild cherry, pussy willow, and a few larch and juniper thrown in for good measure. This mix provides not only valuable, resilient habitat for wildlife but also economic protection for the site in years to come. Creating mixed species timber crops makes clear felling an inefficient approach, and do the structure of the plantation protects locks it in to sustainable CCF practices. This plantation provides woodland creation grants for the short term, and carbon capturing building materials in the long term. It is our investment in the future.
Our seasonal pond dries up every summer, and refills every winter. This seasonal fluctuation means the diversity of the site is pretty high; breeding habitat for amphibians in the spring, foraging for birds and mammals in the summer. We are working on a plan with SDNP to create a permanent source of water there, and we will keep you posted as that develops.
The focus of my study was to investigate the connection between bioindicator bird species and habitat value, and assess how each method could be used in woodland management. Bioindicator species are organisms that tell us about the wider ecosystem through their behaviour; breeding, foraging, nesting etc. As woodland and scrubland birds are vulnerable to changes in woodland management, monitoring them gives us a strong indication of how restoration efforts are progressing. Since the Whitelands Project began, breeding bird territories have increased by 55%, with generalist woodland bird species (such as wren, bullfinch and long tailed tit) increasing the most. There have been a few new arrivals, such as spotted flycatcher, a beautiful broadleaf woodland specialist that has been making the most of the cavities developing in infected ash trees. Sadly, we have also taken a few hits, losing shy species such as treecreepers, possibly because of the increased human activity on the site.
My study concluded that although habitat and bioindicator species metrics are informative in their own ways, they aren’t necessarily comparable. You cannot rely on simple habitat analysis to tell you what species are using your site, and monitoring focal species won’t tell you all you need to know about ecosystem health. We need to consider woodlands and their constituent parts in context, looking at how they compare to regional and even national trends. Basically, biodiversity is complicated, and we all need to be wary of methods that seek to oversimplify it.
Woodland birds are nationally declining at alarming rates, which is representative of the state of nature across the UK. But we here at Whitelands, and at so many other small scale projects across the country, we are making a difference. Not only have we increased biodiversity in an age of critical species loss, we have provided a source of income for 5 different families throughout a pandemic. We have engaged hundreds of people with their local environment. And throughout all of it we have helped to restore not only the native woodland ecosystem, but people’s connections with it. Whitelands workers, volunteers, customers and contributors – this is all thanks to you!